The early '90s grunge explosion pretty much sealed the stateside fate of England's noisy, atmospheric guitar invasion, relegating bands such as Swervedriver and My Bloody Valentine to America's CD cutout bins in near record time. It's an unfortunate bit of recent history that someone might want to pass on to the U.S. bands Hum and Mercury Rev. Both groups, which share the stage at the Abyss Thursday, refuse to abandon their tidied-up versions of the distorted wall-of-sound experiments begun a decade ago by Sonic Youth and carried forward by the now anonymous Brits. That may cost them in the long run, but for now, their music still holds a certain charm.
Hum is a brooding, corn-fed foursome from Champaign, Illinois, a scholarly hamlet that, at one point, had dibs on becoming the next hotbed for new music, along with other university towns such as Lawrence, Kansas, Tempe, Arizona, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Like its competition, though, Champaign (home to the University of Illinois) never quite made it out of the gate when Seattle and, a little later, Chicago took over the kids' collective consciousness. Hum ended up working its cultish magic in the shadow of the Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill and other more showy Illini, but they did it with enough enthusiasm to nab a deal with RCA.
Last year saw the release of Hum's You'd Prefer an Astronaut (the zebra on the CD cover makes the title even more ludicrous). While its rants tend to babble on about nothing for long spells, there's no slighting the CD's sonic impact. Hum's approach is not all that detached from grunge, though it tends to retreat inward rather than lashing out in frustration to the delight of a phalanx of battling bodies. So while you may see a mosh pit at a Hum show, it's often impermanent, with participants refraining from bumping into one another when a song demands their undivided attention. At this point, the only tune to have that calming influence in Houston has been "Stars," a dreamy play on your standard guy-girl mind games with a punishing chorus and opaque lyrical observations such as, "She thinks she missed the train to Mars / She's out back counting stars." With Hum, the words don't matter so much as the complete experience -- that rushing sensation of layer upon layer of amplified current spilling forth to lull you into a '60s-style out-of-body experience made safe for the '90s.
Mercury Rev shares a similar neo-psychedelic plane, though the New York quintet stretches even farther into the recesses of its dense environment, creating blasts of sound that are both beautiful and inexplicable. If Hum's buzzing, guitar-dominated landscapes are merely abstract, then Mercury Rev's instrumental static (guitars garbled wonderfully by a swirling support team of flutes, keyboards and various levers and switches) is, at times, dissonance incarnate.
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Appropriately, this loose excuse for a band got its start making soundtracks for obscure independent films, often meshing the friendly sounds of instruments with unfriendly noises from dismantled TV sets and explosions from plastic model space shuttles stuffed with gunpowder. Some of these experiments found their way, in edited form, onto Mercury Rev's critically acclaimed 1991 debut, Yerself Is Steam. But the band's third and newest release, See You on the Other Side, is by far its most satisfying, with the multidimensional weirdness curbed without sacrificing any of the group's ambition. The CD takes a stab at just about every popular genre, from rock to blues to techno to soul, and never manages to sound rote in the process. On-stage, Mercury Rev's jarring scramble of soundscapes frequently strays to a place just this side of cacophony, which makes for some tense interludes and rarely a dull moment in between. -- Hobart Rowland
Hum and Mercury Rev perform Thursday, February 8, at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $8. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Godplow and Jarvis open. For info, call 863-7173.
Lucy Kaplansky -- It's a little late to be touring in support of a CD released in 1994, but everybody needs a plug sometimes. And for singer/songwriter Lucy Kaplansky, shining a spotlight on The Tide to draw attention to her Houston debut makes sense. It certainly make more sense than the name-association games critics have played with Kaplansky -- sounds like Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter? None of these comparisons fit musically, though they do have their place. Kaplansky has sung backup for Colvin and Griffith, and also for John Gorka, with whom she'll share the stage this week.
But those are merely the trappings. Kaplansky is very much her own performer, defined as much by how she differs from her peers as how she conforms to them. Her voice is direct and simple, never histrionic, but fireplace warm; her inflection is clear, devoid of hip squiggles and distinct in its lack of rasp, husk and other swollen characteristics. Lyrically, she holds the middle ground as well. Surprising for someone who abandoned performing for several years to pursue a career as a psychologist, Kaplansky stays away from convoluted, enigmatic probings. Nor does she sink to cliche. Instead, she sticks to the basics, with just enough room for interpretation to keep her work magnetic. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, February 11, with John Gorka. Tickets are $15. 528-5999. (Bob Burtman)
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